Time is soon to be called on the structures of Didcot A power station which, despite being in working order when it was closed last year and being an iconic landmark in Oxfordshire, was thrown onto the scrap heap over a year ago due to EU laws regarding coal-fired power stations.
As a consequence Didcot A power station and three of the six iconic cooling towers which have dominated the skyline for 40 years will now only dominate for just over a week as the countdown marches on relentlessly towards their demolition.
RWE NPower, who owns the site and associated land, is due to bring down three of the 325ft southern cooling towers with explosives between 3am and 5am on Sunday 27th July. A process which is subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment:
The Court of Appeal ruled in March that demolition projects previously excluded from the need for planning permission will require environmental impact assessment (EIA) where they are likely to have significant effects on the environment. The practical implications of the decision are far – reaching. The decision was based on 1999 EIA Regulations which have been superseded (on 24 August 2011) by new Regulations. But the same principles will apply, since the new Regulations make few changes.
The 1999 EIA Regulations are naturally subject to EU law as per this Statuary Instrument (my emphasis):
The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, as respects England, and the Secretary of State for Wales, as respects Wales, being designated(1) Ministers for the purposes of section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972(2) in relation to measures relating to the requirement for an assessment of the impact on the environment of projects likely to have significant effects on the environment, in exercise of the powers conferred by that section and section 71A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990(3) and of all other powers enabling them in that behalf, and having taken into account the selection criteria in Annex III to Council Directive 85/337/EEC(4) as amended by Council Directive 97/11/EC(5) hereby make the following Regulation.
RWE npower has called this “Deconstruction of Didcot A” a process which it has “handed over to the appointed demolition contractors, Coleman and Company”. Naturally “deconstruction” of a power station is a very complex process, and much of it has already undergone “deconstruction” as detailed by the RWE website. An example is this Daily Mail article from November 2013:
Traffic came to a standstill for the biggest load ever transported on Britain’s roads – a power station transformer weighing an earth-shattering 640 tonnes.
The giant transformer, a vital component used to transmit energy at power stations, and specialised transporter vehicle combined are heavier than a space shuttle.
The enormous vehicle is 100m long and 5m wide and took up two lanes of the motorway while it crawled to its final destination at just 4mph. Such an epic undertaking has never before been attempted in the UK and took a team of six heavy haulage experts nine months to plan, as well a team of 20 accompanying the vehicle as it inches its way along the road.
It began its slow journey from Didcot power station in Oxfordshire on Friday and caused 13-mile long tailbacks when it wound its way along the M4 on Saturday.
Demolition of the cooling towers themselves were apparently due to happen in January earlier this year but had been delayed as the train loop around parts of the power station was until recently being used as temporary sidings (trains are now being moved to Banbury) while the Great Western Railway from London to Bristol undergoes electrification, a track which passes right next to Didcot A.
As an aside it’s worth noting that electrification of the GWR is of course being carried to help comply with climate change targets and according to National Rail “presents a huge opportunity and is vital for long-term, low carbon economic growth”. Nor will it come as a surprise that the overhead line electrification (OLE), rather than a third rail, has been chosen as a solution because it has to be compatible with the European rail network, notably Directive 2001/16/EC.
Installation of OLE has resulted in massive disruption along the route and the major reconstruction or partial destruction of many grade listed bridges and other buildings. The Box Tunnel, near Bath, for example will require a lowering of the railway to accommodate OLE thus requiring significant gradients to enter and exit. Given that Brunel prided himself of how level and flat the railway was to be; his obsession described as “Brunel’s Billiard Table”, we would imagine that he would have a duck fit over current alterations in order to comply with EU Directives.
However regarding bringing down the towers what has apparently vexed a number of local residents most – supported by members of the local council – is that demolition is due to take place in the early hours of the morning. RWE NPower argues that the pre-dawn demolition is to ensure ‘safety’ and ‘minimal disruption’.
But residents are demanding, maybe understandably, that the demolition be pushed back to 6am so that there is more opportunity to witness the ‘historic event’:
Some of us have lived with the towers on our doorsteps for the last 40 years. Demolishing them whilst it is dark robs us of our chance to say a final goodbye. We are stakeholders in this project, yet our voice has been ignored.
Another example of such objections regarding the timing of demolition is illustrated by chief executive of South Oxfordshire District Council (SODC) David Buckle (my emphasis):
On behalf of my two councils I am writing to say how disappointed we were to hear that RWEnpower’s contractors are planning to blow up the first 3 cooling towers at Didcot Power Station between 03:00 and 05:00 on Sunday 27 July.
The cooling towers are of huge significance to Didcot and the wider area for many local residents they have lived with them all their lives. Whilst the vast majority will be pleased to see them go they would also like to witness the event and your timing will make this very difficult.
We would like to suggest that you look at pushing the demolition time back to 06:00. I think that many people would see this as a reasonable compromise; it is still early enough to avoid significant disruption to road and rail services but is late enough for local families to get up and watch this once in a lifetime special event.
It’s probably worth noting at this point that David Buckle’s grasp of details and due process on such matters is rather undermined by his previous actions regarding cocking-up elections as a returning officer:
OFFICIALS had no idea until after elections in southern Oxfordshire that thousands of people didn’t get their voting papers, the returning officer has said.
More than 2,250 polling cards were not printed and 2,035 postal votes were not delivered for May’s council elections in South Oxfordshire and the Vale of White Horse district, an independent report revealed.
Funnily enough he didn’t lose his job despite admitting responsibility stopped with him:
“…I was a little naive and I’ve learned lessons for the future…Mr Buckle said the buck stopped at him and said more checks would be done in the future to make sure Royal Mail received the expected number of cards”
But no matter David Buckle’s sentiments regarding the timing of the demolition are echoed by the local Tory MP Ed Vaizey:
“…I believe that it will be much better, and much safer, if they can do so in an organised way a little later, perhaps around 6am.”
Interestingly the words “I believe” betray “lazy” Vaizey’s impotence – the only realistic option available to him is to jump on the bandwagon of Facebook campaigns in an attempt to make it seem he is being active. Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail puts forward a slightly cynical motive for the timing:
I wonder why the electricity company npower wants to demolish the mighty cooling towers of Didcot ‘A’ power station in the middle of the night, between 3am and 5am on Sunday, July 27.
Didcot ‘A’ has been shut to satisfy EU rules against coal-fired power stations, themselves driven by unproven fantasies about man-made global warming. Even if this were true, it would be futile. As Didcot falls, China will no doubt be opening two or three coal-powered stations.
The company says the pre-dawn demolition is to ensure ‘safety’ and ‘minimal disruption’. But could they be influenced by the fact that film of the levelling of a perfectly viable power station might become a lasting symbol of our insane energy policies – the deliberate, dogma-driven destruction of scarce generating capacity just as we face a severe risk of power cuts?
Hitchens clearly implies that the early morning timing is a policy by RWE NPower to try to reduce the symbolism of EU-inspired insane energy policies. Yet RWE NPower have made no attempt to disguise this as noted in a previous post RWE sent out a letter to all residents of Didcot and surrounding areas specifically mentioning the EU right from the outset:
This is because we were required to limit the lifespan of the power station under the Large Combustion Plant Directive – an EU law aimed at reducing emissions across Europe.
In addition, destroying an iconic landmark in the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside which can be seen for miles and miles around, as pictured below, can hardly be done discreetly and will be filmed regardless. Someone is going to notice missing cooling towers whatever time it is destroyed:
Hitchens therefore is reading a little too much into this. In contrast it is reasonable to conclude that the timing has instead been influenced by other factors. The power station is not out in the middle of nowhere, instead it is close to residential areas and also has to take into account other significant considerations.
Didcot lacks an “X Factor” appeal in terms of a desirable place to live but there is no denying that one of its main attractions is superb transport links. It has excellent train links into London – a consequence of Mr Brunel’s “Super Iron Snake” which arrived in 1839 and transformed Didcot into a place of major significance. It became a junction on the Great Western Line to Bristol, London, Oxford and Southampton (the latter line closed due to Beeching), so much so it became an important part of military logistics – Vauxhall Barracks is still there.
Therefore Didcot’s rail links are precisely why the power station was built where it was (even after the Beeching Axe). The rail links near the power station can be seen below:
Thus due to the importance of the Didcot junction, in the early hours of the morning when passenger trains are not running, it is still very busy with freight traffic. On average 20 – 30 freight trains pass through Didcot at such time, around 10 came from London for example – oil wagons pass through Didcot to Bristol and a similar number pass through coming from Bristol to London. Other traffic comes from north of Didcot such as from Oxford.
For example the Cowley car plant in Oxford produces Mini’s and over 35% of its cars are moved by train much of it going to Southampton docks via Didcot. Then Swindon pressing plant provides most of the body panels and body sub-assemblies for the Mini models which are produced at the Oxford plant in Cowley. Again this is moved by rail through Didcot.
Due to the proximity of the power station to the railway lines they would need to be shut, before, during and after the demolition. Freight trains would need to be held back. Thus by moving the time of the demolition to 6am would increase the risk of impacting on the scheduling of passenger trains.
After demolition train tracks need to be checked for debris, damage and other problems associated with blowing up 325ft towers made of concrete and bricks. Any delay especially if the demolition doesn’t go according to plan would have a significant knock-on effect with the rest of Sunday’s passenger train’s timetable with freight trains held in the wrong place completely out of position.
And demolitions don’t always go to plan, an example in the UK was the iconic Tinsley Towers in Sheffield which were very close to the Tinsley Viaduct on the M1 motorway – towers which featured in the film The Full Monty. They too were brought down at 3am:
Thousands of people turned up to watch the planned demolition of the Tinsley Cooling Towers in Sheffield at 3am on Sunday 24th August 2008.
A section of the north tower remained pointing into the sky. Two hours passed while the Highways Agency and the owners of the towers – energy company E.On – debated what to do.
Given the unpredictability of explosions it’s not unreasonably that a window of opportunity is necessary to account for unforeseen problems.
And nor are trains the only problem. Two major trunk roads pass very close to the power station, notably the A4130 which is busy with heavy goods vehicles not only to Milton Park, but Southmead Industrial Estate which has among other things distribution centres for Asda and Tesco stores across the county. Deliveries to and from these distribution centres begin at around 5am. A 6am demolition proposed by Vaizey and others therefore would have a significant impact on deliveries given that the main roads out of Didcot would be closed.
Other problems may include that blowing up at a later time cooling towers which are very visible from major roads such as the A34 and the M40 motorway is likely to induce rubbernecking to the detriment and safety of other road users.
RWE NPower have confirmed that the site will be floodlit – no surprise given health and safety considerations – so the argument that it occurs in the early hours when it is ‘dark’ has no bearing on whether we can actually ‘see’ it and given it is a Sunday morning (not a school night) the hour should be inconsequential:
They’d been camping out since teatime. Some had portable gas stoves, some brought their young children tucked up in duvets in the back of their cars – all were there to watch the demolition of the Tinsley Towers.
So the choice is clear if we want to see the Didcot towers fall, we either get up or stay up. In truth getting up at 3am on Sunday morning is not really that difficult or inconvenient.